How to Get Help If Your Flight Is Delayed or Canceled

Itf you had a bad experience flying this summer, know that you weren’t alone.

More than 5,800 complaints about airlines were filed last June—an increase of nearly 270% compared to the same month in 2019, according to new data from the Department of Transportation (DOT). Analysts predicted that airlines would face staffing shortages, weather problems, and a high demand for vacations. This led to an increase in cancellations as well as delays.

There is some help. On Wednesday, several major U.S. airlines—including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines—updated their customer service agreements by committing to pay for travelers’ meals and hotel accommodations if they delayed or canceled flights due to factors under their control (which excludes weather). JetBlue, for instance, announced it will provide $12 meal vouchers and United will give meal vouchers for the “reasonable cost of a meal at airport food vendors.”

The timing couldn’t be better: An estimated 12.7 million people are expected to fly from U.S. airports between Thursday and Monday, according to data from Hopper, a travel booking app.

“We are still seeing tremendous demand for travel like we did throughout the summer,” says Hayley Berg, lead economist at Hopper, a travel booking app. “Even though cancellation rates have been as high as 10% and delay rates well over 30% on particular days, travelers have shown they are resilient.”

How to handle a flight cancellation or delay

DOT advises passengers who have an issue with their air travel to contact their airline immediately. They may also be able help you sort out baggage problems. Travelers should remember, though, that they are not entitled to any compensation from airlines if their flight is delayed or canceled due to factors outside of an airlines’ control, such as weather, though some airlines may provide vouchers for meals or a hotel room if asked.

For issues that go unresolved at the airport, travelers can file a formal complaint with the airline by sending them an email or filling out a complaint form on the airline’s website. Or, travelers can contact DOT via phone or post to complain. The airlines are obliged to reply to customer complaints within 30 calendar days.

About 29% of June’s complaints related to flight issues, such as cancellations or delays, and 24% were about refunds.

Continue reading: Air Travel Is Chaos Right Now. Things to know before you fly

Officials hope to address travel delays

Ahead of the Labor Day travel rush, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote in a letter to executives of U.S. airlines that “the level of disruption Americans have experienced this summer is unacceptable.”

DOT plans to publish a new online dashboard on Sept. 2 where passengers can find “easy-to-read, comparative summary information” on the different compensation packages that passengers are entitled to when there are delays or cancellations caused by factors within the airline’s control.

The DOT also proposes a variety of rules that will better protect travelers. For example, airlines must refund passengers if they are delayed for more than three hours. The proposal would allow travelers to receive a refund for changes in departure and arrival airports, extra connections, and if their seat was downgraded. After a period of 90 days for comments, the new rules may be approved.

While these initiatives would significantly expand travelers’ rights, some warn it may not be enough.

“Travelers are obviously frustrated,” Berg says. “But the real solution is to tackle the root causes of the disruptions by solving all the infrastructure pieces rather than just patching the symptoms.”

The slowing down of travel

Although Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer—and thus the busiest travel season— flight disruptions are likely to continue until airline schedules are back to full capacity and staffing returns to pre-pandemic levels, Berg says. This could take some time.

As they recuperate from the effects of pandemic losses and staff shortages, airlines are flying at 95% or less of their 2019 capacity. Many airlines including American Airlines, Delta Airlines and Alaska Airlines modified the flight schedules to prevent major disruptions.

Berg said that travel is generally more pleasant in September-November, but this has not been the case historically. “We are hoping that even though disruption rates will likely be higher than in previous years, overall there should be less disruption in the coming months.”

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